Why It’s Better to be Beta than Alpha

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

That’s from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. The point is that it’s not easy being No. 1; constantly having to watch your back, stressing over who might be angling to knock you off, and steal your crown.

Four hundred years later, scientists are finally getting around to proving that axiom. A new study of baboons shows that being the alpha male in a group dynamic may not be worth the stress the position imposes. Here’s the abstract:

In social hierarchies, dominant individuals experience reproductive and health benefits, but the costs of social dominance remain a topic of debate. Prevailing hypotheses predict that higher-ranking males experience higher testosterone and glucocorticoid (stress hormone) levels than lower-ranking males when hierarchies are unstable but not otherwise. In this long-term study of rank-related stress in a natural population of savannah baboons (Papio cynocephalus), high-ranking males had higher testosterone and lower glucocorticoid levels than other males, regardless of hierarchy stability. The singular exception was for the highest-ranking (alpha) males, who exhibited both high testosterone and high glucocorticoid levels. In particular, alpha males exhibited much higher stress hormone levels than second-ranking (beta) males, suggesting that being at the very top may be more costly than previously thought.

From an article on ScienceDaily.com:

“An important insight from our study is that the top position in some animal — and possibly human — societies has unique costs and benefits associated with it, ones that may persist both when social orders experience some major perturbations as well as when they are stable,” said lead author Laurence Gesquiere, an associate research scholar in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Baboons are not only genetically closely related to humans, but like humans they live in highly complex societies.”

While being the alpha male may be bad for your health, the act of social climbing turns out to come with added benefits besides merely improving one’s lot in life. From an article in the Daily Telegraph:

Those who are upwardly mobile cut their chances of suffering from high blood pressure by a fifth, compared with siblings who stay on the same rung.
While the link between socio-economic position and high blood pressure is well established, this Swedish study is the first to show that crossing the class divide can benefit health in such a way.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm drew their conclusions by examining 6,000 pairs of same-sex twins born between 1926 and 1958. They looked at their parents’ jobs, classifying them as having either “low” or “high” socio-economic status and compared this with the jobs their children held decades later.

The lesson: social climbing is good for your health, as long as you stop before you reach the top.

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  1. Jose Luis says:

    Good news. Now we can smile when seeing our bosses a bit streesed!

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  2. assumo says:

    Interesting research. I wonder if it is possible to have a social group without a #1 who would take on the commensurate stress of the job. Even in an “egalitarian society”, would there always be one whose ego pushed them to the top, if not officially, then in a de facto sense?

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    • Guru says:

      I think so. Happens all the time in high stress jobs like consulting.

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    • GDorn says:

      It would be interesting to see the study re-created using a primate species closer to humans, such as chimpanzees or bonobos, who have significantly different social structures. Baboons are actually quite a bit further from us than even gorillas.

      In particular, how would this study translate to the matriarchal bonobos?

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    • alex in chicago says:

      He isn’t referring to Alpha personalities. In the sense, there must always be an alpha. Even if it is the person who says, “There should be no more Alphas” he then, by definition has become the Alpha.

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  5. James says:

    “…the act of social climbing turns out to come with added benefits besides merely improving one’s lot in life.”

    The study addresses socioeconomic status, but doesn’t appear to separate the social climbing from the economics. I wonder what would show up if they compared low status but remunerative jobs (lawyers, perhaps?) against high status but not well paid ones.

    Perhaps the lowered blood pressure is simply the result of no longer having to stress over paying bills.

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  6. Mike B says:

    The best position is sort of what Dick Cheney had going for him with a pliant Alpha that could take all the heat with all the real decision making power left to the Beta.

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  7. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Ask any real innovative creator about the “Team Concept” and she/he will tell you that products are really developed by alpha “Champions” who drive/lead people to heroic levels, often through sheer force of will, dynamism and enthusiasm. Think “Patton”.

    I have always wondered if the overpaid denizens of walnut paneled boardrooms and glass corner offices are alphas or not. I’ve met a lot of alphas who don’t dwell there because they don’t play “politics”. They say, “It’s My way or the highway.”

    My favorite quote:

    “Teamwork: A lot of people doing exactly what I say.”
    (Marketing exec., Citrix Corp.)

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  8. stephen moratti says:

    The point is that it doesnt matter in an evolutionary sense if the alpha male drops dead of a heart attack at 40 – as long as he has fathered more offspring than the competition (and with humans passed on more wealth to his offspring), then he has suceeded magnificantly.

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